During February, we celebrate African American History Month, recalling the contributions made by African Americans to our nation. We all know the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. Did you know, though, that we have a local African American hero who stood up and publicly stood up against racial inequality in the 1960’s? That pro-life hero is Sr. Mary Antona Ebo.
Born in 1924 in Bloomington, Illinois, Sr. Ebo had a challenging life. When she was only four years old, her mother died and because of financial difficulties, her unemployed father was soon unable to support her and her siblings. Sr. Ebo and her two sibling went to live in the McLean County Home for Colored Children.
There she met a boy named “Bish.” Bish would sneak into Catholic churches to pray and one day, he invited Sr. Ebo to join him. At the time, she was Baptist. This experience started sowing the seeds of her conversion.
When she was a teenager and recovering from tuberculosis, she began learning more about the Catholic faith from a visiting priest. She had to do this secretly and when the director of the children’s home found out, Sr. Ebo was kicked out. She went to live with a family friend in Bloomington.
Sr. Ebo was able to finish out the last two years of high school at Holy Trinity in Bloomington where she became the first African-American graduate. After high school, she wanted to become a nurse but was rejected at many nursing schools because of her race. Eventually, she joined the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps in St. Louis, a program to train replacement nurses serving in World War II. Soon afterwards, in 1946, she became one of the first three African-American women to join the Franciscan Sisters of Mary.
After entering religious life, she was sent to study medical administration, and eventually earned a Masters from Saint Louis University. In 1965, she became the director of the medical records department at St. Mary’s Hospital, making her the first African American supervisor of any department at the hospital.
On March 7, 1965, hundreds gathered in Selma, Alabama to demonstrate the desire of African Americans to exercise their right to vote. As they marched toward Montgomery, state troopers and police shot teargas and waded into the crowd, beating the protesters and hospitalizing over 50 people. This event would come to be know as “Bloody Sunday.”
Sr. Ebo’s superior asked if she wanted to join an interfaith group travelling to Selma for a second march. This request marked a turning point for Sr. Ebo who realized she needed to take action. She was the only African American woman religious among a group of nearly 50 priests, rabbis, Protestant clergy, and Catholic nuns. When their group arrived at the march, Sr. Ebo found herself thrust to the front of the march, facing a number of microphones. When asked why she was there, Sr. Ebo spoke words from her heart: “I am here because I am a Negro, a nun, a Catholic, and because I want to bear witness.”
Reflecting on the experience later, Sr. Ebo said, “It turned out that the habit was what got everyone’s attention very quickly, because nuns had not been seen doing anything like that before. “It didn’t ring a bell with me that we were getting involved with something that was hysterical and historical.”
Soon after Selma, Sr. Ebo became the first African-American woman religious leader to be in charge of a Catholic hospital when she was appointed as executive director of St. Clare Hospital in Wisconsin. Since then, she has also worked as a hospital chaplain, a job she has compared to being a clown because of the joy that she is able to bring to the sick.
Beyond her work in the medical arena, Sr. Ebo helped found and is past president of the National Black Sisters Conference. She is an often-requested speaker and has received numerous awards and honorary degrees.
Throughout her life, Sr. Ebo has lived by a mantra that is useful for us too as we spread the Gospel of Life: “Give your glory to God. Give your prayers to me.”